To Protect

How the Koua Fong Lee case allows us to re-examine justice and what that re-examination should look like.  
Right now, many folks are angered about the imprisonment of St Paul native, Koua Fong Lee.  They are demanding a retrial for his vehicular homicide conviction, saying it was his car that malfunctioned.  I’m happy to see them now trying to free this man, but I struggle accepting why he was threatened with prison in the first place.

What is the point of locking people up if they are not ruled a threat?

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More than just seeing one individual set free, perhaps this case is a chance for us to rethink imprisonment in general, to examine the costs of enacting our current version of justice.

In the summer of 2006, Lee was in a very bad car accident.  He was driving home with his family from church when he exited off of I94.  But rather than slow down, Lee’s car accelerated, heading straight for a vehicle waiting at a light atop the ramp.  The crash was brutal.  It killed the driver of the waiting car as well as his 10-year-old boy.  A 9-year-old niece was left paralyzed; she died a year-and-a-half later from her injuries.

The car that was struck by Lee

What happens in the wake of something like this?  Those involved or who witness such a tragedy look for answers.  They experience a lot of incredible emotions and, naturally, fingers get pointed.  In this case, the finger pointing was easy.  Lee drove the car.  He maintained that his vehicle malfunctioned, but prosecutors said he was negligent, that he accidentally pushed the wrong pedal.  And according to our laws, this means he should go to prison.

I undestand the desire of wanting to see someone “pay for what they did”-particularly if you have close ties to the incident.  And even if you don’t have ties, I know it may seem unsettling to consider “letting him walk” if he caused such a horrible tragedy.  But what happens when we step back and survey the best way to handle a bad situation?  It allows us to look at incarceration in a new light.

Punishment, Revenge, and Protection

We all want to be safe from theft, assault, and the like.  So people appreciate a prison’s purpose of keeping these offenders away from the rest of us.  But many people in jail are no threat at all.  Like Lee.  The prosecution never contested that he was violent or malicious in his intent, that this was anything other than a horrible accident.  The prosecution wasn’t there to make an argument about protection.  But if not to protect, what the heck was the purpose of the trial?  Punishment, revenge-Lee had to pay for what he did.

It may fulfill a certain satisfaction to see another getting their comeuppance, but how much is that satisfaction worth?  Would we be better off not fulfilling this desire?

It’s troubling that we normalize these darker desires and actions, that another’s suffering can be obtained, supported, and encouraged by the highest orders of our law.  Think of how the veil of justice is thrown over people’s uglier needs, prettying up Group A’s demands for “justice” (revenge) against a member of Group B.

The door to inconsistency and favoritism also becomes open when we punish.  Cases all over the country occur where accident-causers stand a better chance if the jury can sympathize with the defendant.  This is tough for a minority who isn’t fluent in English.  While we can’t magically get rid of this type of favoritism in day to day happenings, we can help limit its effect by removing the legal mechanisms that can be used to exploit it.

[I once watched a segment about parents who forgot their babies in the car, resulting in them overheating and dying.  Clearly an accident, clearly distraught, and clearly pointless to imprison, the parents weren’t convicted. Were they negligent?  Certainly, just like Lee is said to have been. But in these cases, salt wasn’t poured in the wounds.]

As well, we’re willing to spend a lot of money for this need-it’s expensive to lock someone up.  And it’s even more expensive when you consider the loss from prisoner’s not producing while behind bars.

Back to this case, what about Lee’s wife and four kids?  Or his inability to act in ways to pay back the best he can for what happened?  (Isn’t this what true justice is all about?-making amends, not rotting in a cell.)

It seems to me that in cases where the defendant isn’t a threat, imprisonment only seems to make a bad situation worse.

Now it’s 30 months later and Lee’s claim about his malfunctioning Toyota has been gaining traction in light of recent, similar, high-profile recalls from the carmaker.  Suddenly, it’s looking quite possible that he wasn’t at fault and that two-and-a-half years of his life were, in fact, stolen from him.  Whoops.

Lee being interviewed- (AP)

Coverage on this has been national and steady over the last six months.  Pictures in the papers show a remorseful Lee crying in prison as he recalls that day.  Mentions of his wife and children are greeted by readers with sympathy and pity.  At the sight of all this, people are now demanding a retrial, literally lining up to defend Lee.

But what are they really defending?  Frankly, they don’t know the first thing about whether or not the car is the problem.  Nobody really does.  The defense says “yes” and the prosecution says “no”.  And the judge will determine whether this new evidence is legitimate grounds for a new trial.

Protesters want Lee free

What the protesters seem to be defending is their sense of morals, and its breach with Lee’s incarceration. But we partially forfeit this defense when we allow this version of justice to be elemental in how we handle accidents and other nonthreatening offenders.  This case is just so magnified, egregious to the point where even the family of the victims-often the very people who would call for more prison time-are supporting his release.

Naturally, this anger can spill over to anyone blocking this cause, namely, the prosecution.  And, ya, I’ll admit my own misgivings, but this is short-sighted in view of the the real concern that precludes subsequent factors such as the retrial, racism, poverty, or Toyota.  It’s about a justice system that seeks to harm a perpetrator, regardless of it being at the expense of helping the situation overall.

The way I see it, we could enact a method to ensure men like Lee do not face prison:  it’s a criminal legal structure freed from our desires to punish and seek revenge, that only serves one purpose: to protect.

(Civil law, of course, would still serve to make guilty parties compensate.)

The ideal way for the law to respond to any situation is to ask how we can move forward in the best, most helpful way possible.  So often, incarceration inhibits this. I don’t think Lee should have ever been on trial for a criminal offense.  Following the accident, how wrong would it have been for him to go home to his wife and kids, piece his life back together and begin to work to help make up for the loss caused that day?

It’s not about “letting him get away with it”, as some might argue; it’s about not needing to see a perpetrator suffer.  Vengeance and punishment may be our fantasy and we may even take it into our own hands, but a better justice system would not include it.

To have a legal system that mimics our emotional tendencies of “getting them back” goes against all that we learn as kids from our parents, teachers, and mentors.  It goes against what being a more mature, cool, and thoughtful human being is all about.

And perhaps Lee shouldn’t get a new trial based on the current evidence.  I don’t know.  I also think it’s irrelevant.  Because he should be pardoned.